North America

Looking for Skilled Technicians? Try the Military

The Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association (RETA), based in Albany, Oregon (U.S.), is launching a program to recruit, train and hire military veterans to work as technicians in industrial refrigeration, focusing on ammonia and CO2 refrigerants. The program’s name: Red White and Cool.

Red White and Cool aims to attract people already equipped with skills prized by the HVAC&R industry, thereby helping companies struggling with the shortage of qualified refrigeration technicians.

“If you’ve worked on aircraft, or if you’ve worked on a ship, then you’ve got that technical skillset already, so it would be a perfect transition,” said Lois Stirewalt, Workforce Development Program Director at RETA, who is spearheading the Red White and Cool program. She was one of 29 women profiled in Accelerate Magazine’s “Women in Natural Refrigerants” cover story in the January 2020 issue. 

Stirewalt began working on military recruitment for industrial refrigeration jobs in 2018 while Executive Director of the Ammonia Refrigeration Foundation (ARF). Last year, she struck up a working relationship with the human resources department at Smithfield Foods, a meat-processor based in Smithfield, Virginia. The company, which already had an initiative to attract former service personnel, eventually became Red White and Cool’s founding sponsor.

The Red White and Cool program is organized by the newly formed RETA Training Institute (RETA TI), a nonprofit arm of RETA that focuses on workforce development issues. RETA TI is also running two other programs, one for women (Women in Natural Refrigeration, which Stirewalt also helped organize) and one to attract young adults and youth. RETA TI was announced at the RETA conference in October 2019.

Five-Week Program

Red White and Cool’s initial training program starts on March 23. It includes four weeks of classroom training  at the Joint Base Langley-Eustis, located adjacent to Hampton and Newport News, Virginia – about 30 minutes from Smithfield’s headquarters – followed by a week of hands-on training at a Smithfield facility. Refrigeration training specialist Wagner-Meinert is providing the classroom training.

The course will mainly focus on ammonia refrigeration, but also includes elements of CO2, according to Stirewalt. At the end of the course, candidates will take the Certified Assistant Refrigeration Operator (CARO) certification test, administered by RETA. 

Smithfield has agreed to hire all the graduates from the first five-week training program. Should any of the graduates come from an area where Smithfield is unable to offer a job, RETA has made a “gentleman’s agreement” that the U.S. government will help them find a job. “I don’t think that’s going to be hard at all given the fact that there are 40,000 job openings,” Stirewalt said.

RETA Executive Director Jim Barron, a navy veteran, has a personal interest in the success of the program. “He’s committed to making sure, if somebody’s falling behind, they’ll [get] personal coaching to make sure everybody can complete the course,” Stirewalt said.

The Red White and Cool program is targeting a minimum of eight candidates, with a maximum of 18, but “at this point we’ve had so much interest, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to cap it,” Stirewalt said.

The state of Virginia has also helped get the word out on social media through its Virginia Values Veterans program, and the U.S. Army has promoted the program on its job boards.

Other industrial refrigeration companies have expressed interest in the program, seeing it as a cost- efficient way of recruiting qualified technicians, a process that can often cost more than $10,000 per person, according to Stirewalt.

Stirewalt has high hopes for the program. “The army loves the name of it, they love everything that we’ve done,” Stirewalt said. “Once we finally got through all the bureaucracy and got approved, they were already talking with us about implementing the same program in Germany and other military bases around the country.”

This article was originally published in the February 2020 issue of Accelerate Magazine.